On Leadership In Hockey

The opinion of someone’s captaincy in hockey really only matters to about 40ish people — and those are the 22 players in the locker room with the Captain any given day and the staff that interact with him every day.

Jamie Benn has taken a beating among Dallas Stars fans — and some national media — over the past two years. He often is the main target of criticism when the Stars struggle on the ice. For fans, those criticisms come across a number of ways.

There’s the subset that believe he should be Derian Hatcher incarnate — laying the body every single shift, blowing guys up, going after anyone that dares to touch a hair on any of his teammates’ heads.

Then there’s the subset that believes that he doesn’t fire up the team. They see his public persona, the after-game media scrums where he’s more soft spoken and doesn’t tend to get away from an even-keeled temperament. This subset of fans would rather see him get emotional and ride the highs and the lows of the season, just as they do. They perceive his discomfort with public speaking in front of the camera as “not caring enough”, which would make him a bad captain in their view.

Still others criticize Benn as captain due to his declining performance on the ice. The 30-year old power forward that’s always led by example had an admittedly tough year points-wise last season, one of the first in his career that he didn’t average nearly a point per game. You could argue a few things were at the root of that: a team that didn’t score a ton to begin with, a power play that struggled for stretches, missing a couple of games due to injury (and the resulting rumors that he was dealing with something nagging all season long, which was primarily a result of fan’s speculation as they tried to account for Benn’s sub-par performance last season).

His relatively quiet start to the season this year (1-5-6 in 16 games played) hasn’t helped quell the shouts from this group of fans to start “fixing” the team by stripping Benn of the captaincy.

Here’s the thing, though. The only people that should care about the captain of a NHL team should be the players in the room, the coaching staff, and the staff that interact with him on a day-to-day basis. Benn’s teammates, current and past, have only ever praised him and his leadership.

That should be the end of the debate. Unless the fans ever get an unvarnished look inside the locker room for a full season, they’ll never know what kind of leader Benn is behind closed doors. So why not trust that the players know who they’d follow into battle and that the captain title is earned — even if it’s not exactly your definition of what a NHL team captain should act, play, or sound like?

It should also be noted that leadership in hockey doesn’t just fall on one guy’s shoulders. Yes, Benn might be the captain and people perk up a little more when he speaks, but that doesn’t mean that other players on the team aren’t also leaders. Tyler Seguin, John Klingberg, Andrew Cogliano, Blake Comeau, Roman Polak, Joe Pavelski, Esa Lindell — these, and likely more we don’t know about, all provide leadership in different ways within the room.

When they talk, players listen — but they don’t have to talk every time. The onus isn’t on one guy to have the experience of every situation to provide the words the team needs every night as they go through a season — and it shouldn’t be. It’s an unrealistic and unfair expectation.

In a sport in which the team is always pushed forward and individual accomplishments are downplayed, those stretches when the team struggles shouldn’t be laid at the feet of just one of the 23 players on the roster, either.